A Mormon Goes to the Movies

With one more week until nominations for this year’s Academy Awards, critics everywhere are speculating about which movies will be receiving nominations. One theme that seems to be emerging is that the movies most likely to receive recognition all have serious themes and strong moral messages; movies like Lincoln, Cloud Atlas, Les Miserables, Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained are critical favorites that all depict dark subjects like slavery, poverty, torture, prostitution, and violence. Even this year’s most favorably reviewed romantic comedy, Silver Linings Playbook, has mental illness as a major plot point. Of course, this is not the first time that movies about serious, difficult themes have been made or have received critical attention. There just seems to be a rather high number of them concentrated at the end of 2012, particularly in contrast to last year’s big winners that were much more lighthearted movies about the movie industry itself.

As an active Mormon who has spent years listening to Church teachings about media, and as a person who loves film, I often find myself conflicted about what I should watch and why. My hunger to learn more about the world and the people in it is often tempered by the worry that I will do spiritual damage to my soul in my quest for knowledge and truth. I know many Mormons share my same concerns about media: does the fact that evil exists in the world mean that we need to see it? Can a work of fiction truly represent reality without depicting evil as well as good? If we do choose to include evil in our fiction, how much should we show? Where are the lines that, once crossed, turn a realistic depiction of sex into pornography or violence into depravity? I don’t know if I have yet answered these questions for myself and I’m not sure if I ever will. One source that I find particularly helpful, though I don’t agree with everything in it, is Orson Scott Card’s seminal lecture “The Problem of Evil in Fiction.”

Card describes a distinction between evil that is depicted by fiction, evil that is advocated by fiction, and evil that is enacted by fiction. For him, the third category is the most obvious to spot; he compares this to the classic example of yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater, as a type of speech that should be regulated because it actually harms others. Card sees pornography as the type of artistic creation that enacts evil because its sole intention is to titillate. I agree with him on this point, but I have often wondered about violence in film. What level of violence does it take for a film to move from advocacy to action? Most official Church discourse focuses more on the effects of sexual immorality in film and so the effects of violence on our souls are unclear. For me, personally, I tend to shy away from graphic depictions of violence on screen (interestingly, I’m not as bothered by violence in print, but that’s a discussion for another day). I’ve never seen a Tarantino film and I don’t plan to, although I have been a bit curious. Much of the discussion about Tarantino’s latest film centers on this question—do the graphic violence and repeated use of racial epithets speak more loudly than Tarantino’s intended critique of slavery? Can a film mean to question evil in the world actually bring about more evil by the way this critique is done?

Of the films I mentioned earlier, I have seen Cloud Atlas, Lincoln, and Les Miserables. Although differing widely in tone, style, and plot, these films all have the same basic theme: the greatest good a person can do in life is to protect and save those who are weaker or less fortunate. I have a feeling fewer Mormons will see Cloud Atlas than the other two movies simply based on the fact that it is rated R, but I find it interesting that the message it sends is the same one as the other two big ‘moral’ movies out there. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t totally recommend it, not just for the level of violence and sexuality it contains, but because it is an inferior film artistically. And yet, many Mormons will dismiss it as an immoral movie simply because it has a more swear words than Lincoln and because the prostitutes take their clothes off (unlike the prostitutes in Les Mis—although I’ve heard more than one person I know mention their reluctance to have their teenage children see the movie version of the musical based on Tom Hooper’s directorial choices during the scenes depicting Fantine’s fall from grace).

I have now come out against the bloodbath-style of Tarantino and for the heavy-handed moral messages of Spielberg, Hooper, and the Wachowskis. What about the movie that has given critics the most to wrestle with this Oscar season? No one seems to know what to do with Zero Dark Thirty; though they all agree that Kathryn Bigelow has created a masterpiece, the director has been tight-lipped about her intentions and message. Some say the movie has a pro-American slant, others that it is a scathing critique of the last eleven years of U.S. foreign policy. Some would argue that a movie doesn’t have to take a side and this work is just trying to objectively depict events from our recent past. Others, and I agree with them, argue that you cannot make a work of art without a moral point of view, even if that point of view is subtle. I’ve been intrigued by the movie and considering seeing it, but I’m not yet sure if sitting through 40 minutes of graphic depictions of torture will merely depict evil or whether those scenes are enacting it in my mind.

As you can tell, I’m still pretty conflicted about what my film viewing choices as a Mormon should be. I believe the counsel we’ve been given to be careful about avoiding immoral media, but am still not sure what makes a film more or less moral. I remember a number of years ago when the movie Crash beat Brokeback Mountain for the Best Picture Oscar and an editorial was published in the newspaper at BYU celebrating the fact that a movie that ‘glorifies homosexuality’ was not rewarded. I found that simplistic judgment to be, frankly, infuriating, especially since you could hardly call a film where the main characters suffer through a series of broken relationships before one of them is beaten to death by a mob a ‘glorification’ of any sort of lifestyle. For some, the presence or absence of particular content makes a movie more or less moral. For others, the ultimate message of a movie is more important than any particular content; and for me, I still haven’t decided. I’ve asked a lot of questions and I hope I’m not the only person mulling these things, so I’ll turn the discussion over to our readers and hopefully you have some great ideas for me to consider.

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7 Responses to A Mormon Goes to the Movies

  1. Th. says:

    .

    Movies exist which I have not seen for the reasons you mention, but as a whole, I try not to overthink these questions. Which may be a terrible choice, but it’s simpler. And, since I’m reading Blink right now, maybe the correct choice?

    • Jessie says:

      I veer back and forth between not thinking about my decisions at all and overthinking them. I’ve had regrets either way. I impulsively saw Magic Mike this summer and that is most likely the movie I will burn in hell over, but I still enjoyed it. Sometimes overthinking is not the answer. I should read Blink some time–it sounds interesting.

  2. Mark Penny says:

    Part of the problem is that it’s quite possible for a work intended to denounce something to end up glorifying and popularizing it–and vice versa. We all come to the movies with our own magnifying glasses and blinders and make what we will of what we see. We also come with different sets (and sets of sets) of nurtured responses. When the inhibitions are shared by maker and viewer, the intended effect is achieved. When the inhibitions differ, unintended effects are achieved.

    • Jessie says:

      Card mentions this problem in his article and I think it is a central question that we will never fully answer when it comes to our creating, viewing, and reading as artists. The main reason why I was so bothered by that editorial about Brokeback Mountain was the fact that when the movie came out I was married to a gay man, and it seemed such an affront that another person thought the reality of my life was so awful no one should ever write or speak of it. I know I viewed that film differently from most other people, and probably even differently from some of my peers in mixed-orientation marriages, because only I have had my experiences. I don’t know if there is a good way to get past the disconnect between what the artist experiences and what the viewer receives, but I know it makes for interesting conversation.

  3. I’m just grateful that the only graphic violence I experience is what I experince while staring a screen and that I choose to see it. We are a privileged people if this is what concerns us. So many live with real violence. I don’t mean to disparage this post (its always a great topic and is well-conceived), but tomorrow is the 3rd anniversary of the IED explosive that blinded my nephew in Afghanistan and took the life of the man who was married to the woman my nephew would later marry. It’s a tender time of year for our family. I’ll go see Zero Dark Thirty for the same reason I saw Brokeback Mountain. Put simply, if other people suffer for me or suffer because of me (and my prejudice), I want to understand their experiences in order to appreciate their sacrifice and so that I can become a kinder person. I consider making the effort to understand and empathize with people who have difficult lives part of the way I show gratitude for the ease of my own existence. Because I have it pretty good. Most of us do.

    • Clarification: My nephew was wounded, nearly fatally, and the other with him were all killed. The widow of on of the fallen came to meet Michael while he was in the recovery. They fell in love and married; Michael adopted their daughter and they are about to have a second child. Amazing story. And very real. And sad and beautiful. Yes, I’m encouraging them to write a book.

  4. Wow, Lisa. My prayers are with you during this difficult anniversary (and I know about those.)

    “I’m just grateful that the only graphic violence I experience is what I experince while staring a screen and that I choose to see it. We are a privileged people if this is what concerns us. So many live with real violence. ”

    That is it exactly, for me. Of those mentioned in the post, the only movie I have seen is Les Mis (we don’t go see a lot of movies for budgetary reasons.) I found a little of it gratuitous, but not Fauntine’s fall. That was depicted so well. It was ugly and painful and heartrending to watch, but that’s the point. You can turn away from those sorts of things much easier when you meet them on the street because you do not know their backstory and don’t identify with them as humans. It’s much easier in a movie/book to identify with someone, because it’s less threatening because they are “imaginary.” A person watching that particular scene might shudder at the way some things were portrayed, but (I think) can’t help but identify with and grieve with Fauntine and see her as an innocent, and therefore see those around them in similar circumstances with a little more relativity or compassion. I believe this is a core argument/reason why fiction is redeeming.

    Anyway. Soapbox safely stowed away…

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